Watching governments unleash their military might and police powers against their own population is repulsive. The Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its people is despicable and deserves the world's harshest condemnation. The sight of the senseless and unbridled hatred in Egypt's violent confrontations against its own people â€" whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the military are in power â€" make us cringe. Other nations in the Middle East have also violated the basic duty of government to serve and protect its citizens â€" not to destroy them.
These kinds of inhuman actions committed by governments against their own people are merely the most recent examples of nations that abuse and abdicate their moral authority. Sadly, we have seen this kind of action many times before in human history.
Tonight and on Sunday, Jewish communities throughout the world will commemorate their own experience with a government that turned against its citizens. This weekend marks the 75th anniversary of a tortuous night when police stood by and allowed marauding mobs to destroy everything Jewish â€" homes, businesses, synagogues, and human life.
The country was Germany, and the actions occurred on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938. The infamous night has come to be called Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. Mobs shattered not only the windows of synagogues and countless retail store fronts, but also the lives of German and Austrian Jewry. Kristallnacht symbolizes the end of 2000 years of Jewish presence in Germany and marks the beginning of the process that led to the "Final Solution" â€" The Holocaust.
In October 1938, Germany deported at least 12,000 Polish Jews despite the fact that they were living in Germany legally. The Polish government refused to allow them entry into the country, which left 8,000 Jews stranded at a border station. They were forced to sleep on floors. They had no food or water.
In November, Herschel Grynzpan, a student living in Paris, received a letter from his sister who was one of the desperate refugees fearing for her and their family's life. Grynzpan went to the German Embassy and asked to see the ambassador. He was taken to the office of Ernst Vom Rath, the third secretary in charge. Grynzpan faced him, took out a gun and fired five shots.
The German propaganda offices exploited the act, making the entire Jewish population in Germany out to be murderers. The goal was to stir up the population to take action against the Jews. When Vom Rath died on Nov. 9, Adolf Hitler, the democratically elected chancellor, ordered police to stand aside and allow paramilitary troops and hordes of Germans to go on the rampage. They thrashed through Jewish communities in more than a thousand cities and towns. The same scenario occurred in Vienna, which had been incorporated into the Third Reich.
Germany was aflame that night. Jewish communities burned while authorities did nothing. The results were devastating. Within two days, 30,000 Jewish males between the ages of 16 and 60 were taken to Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Within months, 5,000 died. Almost 3,000 of them were from Vienna. Days after the riots, field marshal Hermann Goring told other members of the Nazi leadership that he had a letter from Hitler that ordered him to solve the Jewish question "one way or another." So began the beginning of the end for the Jews â€" not only of Germany and Austria, but eventually for the entirety of Europe.
The Nazis fined the Jews for the murder of Vom Rath. The fine, which was the equivalent of about $5.3 billion in today's dollars, was collected through the acquisition of Jewish property. The economic and social chaos crippled the Jews; they effectively became hostages in their homelands. Some escaped, but most were eventually deported to concentration camps. We all know the rest of the story.
The Night of Broken Glass was the beginning of Germany's descent into the deepest depths of evil. While there were protests around the world, they were mostly symbolic. No real action beyond the diplomatic realm was taken. There was no United Nations. There was no CNN to cover the carnage. Newspapers around the world reported the events and ran pictures of burning synagogues, but nothing could be done to stop the onslaught of the Nazi war against the Jews.
What are the lessons of Kristallnacht? In his book "Kristallnacht," Martin Gilbert writes that the events showed how a government deprived its citizens of their full citizenship by "physical violence, combined with arson, the destruction of property, the theft of property, the impoverishment of a whole community, physical assault, deportation and mass murder." Furthermore, Gilbert wrote "that what begins as something finite in destruction and limited in time can quickly develop into a monster of murder; that evil has gradations, but is also a process, and can move smoothly, effortlessly forward to greater evil."
We will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht at Congregation Beth Yam and do our best to use its memory to protect humanity so that these events should not happen to other peoples. Yet, they still do. That is the additional tragedy of it all today.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.